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I found myself in Detroit this week, as I’m traveling with a touring musician. Halloween was upon us, and I dig 70’s Kiss, so I cranked their song, “Detroit Rock City,” and got to thinking about this story I’d heard.
Forty years ago this month, rock ‘n’ roll history was made when Kiss rolled into the town of Cadillac, Michigan—population 10,000. A little over three hours outside of Detroit, nothing extraordinary ever happened there.
Apart from boasting the highest elevation in the state along with eight golf courses, Kiss may be the only reason Cadillac is “on the map.”
Kiss is perhaps best known today for bassist-turned-reality-TV-star Gene Simmons and charming, ruby lipped frontman, Paul Stanley. But back in ’75, all four of the band’s original members (including drummer Peter Criss, and my personal favorite, guitarist Ace Frehley) rocked this small town.
They were truly a phenomenon, unlike anything the music world had ever seen. Wild, outrageous and untamed—everybody knew their music and iconic look. Made up in face paint like a star, a demon, a man from space and a cat, Kiss won the hearts of fans all over the globe.
Pre-interwebs, this was no small feat.
Gene may now think that rock is dead, and who knows, maybe he’s right. One thing is certain: It was alive and well in 1975.
In 1974, the Cadillac High School Vikings football team was lackluster, losing game after game. The assistant coach at the time, Jim Neff, began playing Kiss’ eight-track tapes for the team both at home and en route to away games. In his own words, “We were looking for something to lighten the atmosphere and playing rock and roll in the locker room before practices and games was suggested.” He would invoke the football credo, Keep It Simple, Stupid, and Kiss was a perfect fit. Indeed, Kiss’ albums helped the kids “get loose.”
The team immediately experienced a turnaround and won seven consecutive games. Mr. Neff contacted Kiss’ management and shared Cadillac High School’s success story.
The band was touched and responded in a way nobody expected. They offered to visit Cadillac in the flesh, make appearances at the homecoming parade, perform live and even hang out with the town’s mayor and city council.
On October 9, 1975, Paul and the boys arrived via black limousines and motorcade. Gene popped out of the sunroof and spread his giant wings, no doubt raising an eyebrow or two of some of the sleepy town’s residents. The First National Bank of Cadillac flashed the message, Rock group Kiss, welcome to Cadillac, on their light-up clock, and one of the main thoroughfares was temporarily renamed “Kiss Boulevard.”
Kiss pandemonium ensued as the band rocked Cadillac High’s gym that night, giving an arena level production that left the entire town agape. Smoke bombs, pyro and a full set list surely gave diehard fans—and anyone there—a night to remember. The next day, the band graciously attended a breakfast at town hall and painted up the mayor and town officials in Kiss makeup themselves. They were given a key to the city; Paul Stanley accepted saying, “On behalf of Kiss, I hope you never change the locks.”
Later that day, the homecoming parade was electric with float after float emblazoned with all things Kiss. The band tossed hundreds of guitar picks into the crowd and most of the population wore Kiss face paint. It was as though you were on “Planet Kiss,” some have said.
Those in attendance went on the record saying that Kiss were polite, seemed to genuinely care about their fans and went as far as to call them “the nicest guys.”
That may have changed a few hours later on the football field, when Gene literally picked up sixteen-year-old head cheerleader, Melissa Cadden. With her father in his police officer’s uniform just a few feet away, Mr. Simmons proclaimed, “I could take you with me,” to which Mr. Cadden replied, “Over my dead body.”
Needless to say, Gene promptly put her down, and Melissa stayed put in Cadillac.
The band tossed footballs, posed for photos and tromped around in their six inch high heels. Police officers, fire-fighters, crossing guards, toddlers and grandparents—everyone got a photo with the band.
Nobody had a clue as to what would happen next, when in true flashy Kiss fashion, a helicopter landed on the field. Shocking everyone with their glamorous departure, the boys from New York ran to the chopper, hopped in, then released thousands of leaflets printed with the message, Cadillac High—Kiss Loves You.
A lifelong fan, I got goosebumps watching black and white footage from this event. One of my earliest memories is a red glitter Kiss logo on my aunt’s T-shirt when I was two or three. I was raised on rock ‘n’ roll, eight-track tapes, vinyl that was bought at a record store, not some high-end organic grocery store.
Fan or not, Kiss had a way of uniting people of all ages and walks of life back in 1975, the year I was born. They showed up, gave everybody a good time and spread a little rock ‘n’ roll cheer in a town that was maybe a little down and out, maybe a little small, but for those two days, forty years ago, Cadillac was indeed the center of the Kiss universe.
Rock was alive and well, and in my heart, it always will be.
Author: Anna Maria Giambanco
Editor: Toby Israel
Photo: Used with permission from Kiss Cadillac